I’m still catching up on the avalanche of Sandy news. As expected, the death tolls are up and the tragic stories are beginning to emerge. Also as expected, most of those deaths occurred in the evacuation zones.
When the horrific Breezy Point fire was burning, this update appeared on The Daily Dish, which had sourced it from the New York Times (now fallen off the live update page, and I can’t find it in the archives):
Officials say the fire was reported at about 11 p.m. Monday and involved about 80 to 100 flooded houses situated in the Zone A area. More than 190 firefighters contained the blaze, but were still putting out some pockets of fire more than nine hours after it erupted.
Firefighters said the water was chest high on the street, and they had to use a boat to make rescues. They said in one apartment home, about 25 people were trapped in an upstairs unit, and the 2-story home next door was ablaze and setting fire to the apartment’s roof. Firefighters climbed an awning to access the trapped people, and took them downstairs to the boat in the street.
That would be 25 people who did not obey a mandatory evacuation order, and who would almost certainly have died had firefighters not risked their own lives to rescue them from an area they were not supposed to be in. In fact there were no fatalities at Breezy Point (that we know of right now), a miracle that can be attributed only to the courage and training of the firefighters.
Which brings me to my questions. If a first responder had died in the act of saving people who refused to obey a mandatory evacuation order, would those people be civilly or criminally liable for that death? If not, should they be?
And if there is no liability or responsibility, then what is the purpose of a “mandatory” evacuation zone as opposed to any other sort of evacuation zone?
Lastly, what about the elderly or physically disabled, who want to evacuate but cannot? Does the government bear responsibility for getting them out, and if so, which government — regional, city, state, federal?
Of course, there must be a terribly slippery slope in the issue of responsibility. A 75-year-old who couldn’t get out would not have the same personal responsibility as a healthy 30-year-old who could get out, but chose not to leave because “this is all overhyped and the last storm wasn’t that bad.” So if liability were to be assigned, then capacity and intent would have to be measured and I’m getting a headache already just thinking about it.
I am asking these questions out of genuine curiosity, and a knowledge that among my readers are members of law enforcement, lawyers and others who know much more about the civil and legal aspects of this than I do. How does this stuff work?